Friday, June 3, 2016

Frog and Toad Are Friends by Arnold Lobel (1970)

Tea for Two
Frog and Toad were all over the place in the last week.    Here.  Here.  Here.  I wonder why the sudden interest in Frog and Toad?   Additionally, about a year ago, Arnold Lobel was one of Horn Book's "Five Gay Picture-Book Prodigies and the Difference They've Made".   That was a eureka! moment for me, because I didn't know that Lobel was gay (and had died from AIDs in the bad sad old days).

I've expressed my love for Frog and Toad elsewhere and many times; so much that I believe I can start calling them my gay spirit animals.  

The picture books, easy readers, and novels from when I first started to read have formed so much of my social conduct and way of life, my tenets and mores, the way I am, some of the codes by which I live my life and how I treat others.  Bilbo Baggins and the Peanuts gang; The King with Six Friends; The Phantom Tollbooth and Doctor Dolittle and Trixie Belden and all the rest.  Frog and Toad are part of my pantheon.  Something about the Lobel world, and Frog and Toad in particular, is joyful and comfortable to me, even (perhaps even especially) as adult.  To tumble down a rabbit hole and end up in Frog and Toad Land would be marvelous and simple, full of small delights.  Even the colors of the illustrations, all earth tones of greens, browns, ochres, are among my most favorite
Possibly what my record looked like
comfort colors.

However, another thing I love about Frog and Toad, is what the linked stories above are all about:  the coded gayness of the these two fictional friends.  As much as Frog and Toad are friends, they also can be read as a couple.    Now when I was a seven year old, listening to my scholastic record and reading along, I had no idea that Frog and Toad were anything other than friends.  I knew I was gay even back then - I didn't have word for it, I just knew I liked boys in a way that I didn't like girls.  But if Frog and Toad were "gay" to me, it was completely a subconscious thing.  

When Lobel wrote and drew Frog and Toad, he was married to a woman but also gay - he came out four years after Frog and Toad Are Friends was published.   At that time, gay male couples could only live together openly in the biggest of cities,  and even there they often had to hide the true nature of their relationships.  Even today in many places gay male couples have to pretend they are friends to escape bigotry or even harm.  When Lobel was creating Frog and Toad, he wasn't even out, and there was no way he could write a book for kids about a gay couple, even a gay couple masquerading as amphibians.  

It wasn't until later, as an adult, that I realized that Frog and Toad could be coded as more than just friends.  This was before I knew Arnold Lobel was gay.  I  remember thinking - Frog and Toad remind me a whole bunch of my husband and I, in the way that they interact and take care of one another.  I remember loving that thought too. 

Here's the ammo for the haters - because those articles up there - there is one in People too, will start some Frog and Toad hateration.  Frog and Toad give little kids like I was an example of two males who could love one another unconditionally, have fun together, laugh and play,  comfort each other, and share each others joys. Let's be honest though - like me at seven, young early readers don't care about same sex relationships; they probably will just know from these books that a frog and toad can be funny and support one another, and get some gentle lessons about friendship, and learn to read a few new words.

It's later, maybe, that a struggling gay teen or young man can remember Frog and Toad, have an a-ha moment like mine, and realize that there is hope out there, that love and friendship like Frog and Toad's is waiting, and that it's possible to find someone who loves you dearly, even if you're a toad.

Frog and Toad Are Friends have five simple and beautiful short stories. They were published in 1970, the year of my birth.  They describe some aspects of my life.

Spring.  It's April - Frog is ready to go.  "The sun is shining! The snow is melting!  We can begin a whole new year together." He's jumping up and down, excited and delighted.  But Toad is having none of that.  Situations similar to this has happened to me and my husband so many times.  I'm sure we are not alone in this.  One of you is ready to rock and roll; the other is still buried under the covers at 11 a.m. 

The Story.  This is where is really begins for me because "The Story" truly is sort of the story of my life.  Confessional:  I'm not a comforter.  I'm not gentle or motherly.   I give off secret death rays that kill quiet and solitude.  I have an electric nature.  It's a funny trait for reader to possess -  I imagine the only time I'm not creating a symphony of cacaphony is when I'm reading.   This is well known and accepted and laughed about in my circle of friends (and husband, who incidentally, is not a circle).  "The Story" is a humorous take on the problems of atomically charged people forced by necessity or desire into a comfort role they aren't comfortable performing, but giving it their damnedest anyway.  Bless you Toad, I ken your struggle.

The Lost Button.  This is one of my favorite stories to read aloud to a group of kids.  It's short and funny.  Also, Toad is once again me.  In addition to being a horrible comforter, I'm a horrible loser and/or finder of items. And I  have in the past, perhaps the near past, had a tendency to make a big deal about said lost and/or found items.  Oh Lobel - how could have known me so well, when I wasn't even born yet?   When Toad says "Oh... what a lot of trouble I have made for Frog" - that's like an anguished inner apology I make all the time regarding my own dear Frog.

A Swim.  In this case, roles are reversed.  I'm never ashamed of new clothes - nor being naked, for that matter ( Frog does not wear a bathing suit; must be Palm Springs).    My husband is demurer and shyer -- he's playing the part of Toad in this story.  Remember when I said these stories were simple and beautiful?  Note that I didn't say "sweet."  There is a bite of reality to this particular story that leaves an unpleasant aftertaste:  when all the animals laugh at Toad.  Toad screws up his courage, comes out of the water, and they all laugh at him, even Frog.  Unlike Carrie, Toad does not instantly kill everyone, even with a glare.  Frog isn't a very supportive friend or lover here, which makes this my least favorite story in the bunch.  Plus, I think Toad looks cute in his bathing suit.  I think the gentle moral for kids is that you shouldn't take yourself too seriously.  (or perhaps swim naked?).  But if someone was laughing at my Toad, I'd tell them all to f*** off. We'd probably never swim at that particular water hole again either.
He just looks sad

The Letter.   Frog does something nice for Toad - in this instant, writes him a letter - because he knows Toad is sad. In a nutshell, isn't that what coupledom is all about?  Your partner is upset, and you comfort him in a way that you know how, to make him happy.  (Frog makes up for being a bastard at the swimming hole, by the way; Toad deserves something nice after that disaster).
 "They sat there, feeling happy together."  That's how you make marriages last folks - learn from Frog and Toad.


My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Frog and Toad are my spirit animals. I love them. Sometimes, I'm Frog, who seems to be the suaver, gentler one of the pair. Mostly here though, I'm Toad, who is electrically charged and loud, can be sad for small reasons, throws occasional tantrums, and loses things.

Lobel crafted this amphibian duo with love and care, which is apparent from beginning to end. The illustrations are comforting and classic; the greens, browns, ochres, dijon mustards of the palette are perfect for this world. The plots are small and beautiful, but far from simple; each story contains a kernel of psychological truth, and even occasionally a bite. Kids will certainly understand Toad's unnecessary temper tantrum and his shyness when it comes to revealing an unflattering bathing suit or Frog's jumping and joyfulness at the beginning when all Toad wants to do is just stay in bed. I imagine parents reading this with their kids will probably see something of their kids in each and every Frog and Toad story. But I think Lobel's gentle genius is that we can see our grown up selves, not always flatteringly, in these stories too.

A must read; if you have not yet read a Frog and Toad story, go forth and do so.


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